Nothing will stop Samreen from becoming a surgeon

Writer: Grieteke Meerman

When her father squandered the money saved for her further education, Samreen’s mother went out to work to save it up again. Nothing, it seems, will stop this young Indian women from becoming a surgeon. Not even her burka – which she just takes off when the need arises. Now she’s convincing other parents how important education is for their daughters.

“I never felt that my mother and father treated me any differently than my brother. Until I finished high school at the age of 15, that is,” says Samreen (19), seated on the couch in her home in the bustling Indian city of Hyderabad. Despite the fact she attained excellent grades at school and it was her ambition to become a surgeon, her father gave the money saved for her further education to his family. “They said that from now on it would be better if I took care of the household. If I was really determined to study I should learn Arabic, the language of Islam. According to my aunts and uncles, obtaining a medical degree would be a complete waste of money.”

Job opportunities

In India, the moment you leave high school is a very important milestone in your life, because the direction you then take can make or break you. For a girl, opting for further education translates to good opportunities on the jobs market, which means she will not be totally dependent on a future husband. The fact that her father, who was at work at the time of the interview, let her down still affects her emotionally. However, sitting next to her mother as she relates her story, she is also quick to defend him. “My father is deaf and dumb and easily swayed. He regrets his decision now, and really wants me to have the opportunities I deserve.”

To recoup those school fees, Samreen’s mother, Rasia, went out to work. “If a girl is not educated she’ll have to put up with a lot later because she won’t be independent,” says the 35-year-old, adding that she speaks from experience. “My own mother died when I was very young, after which my grandfather took care of me and my six sisters, something I am very grateful to him for. But studying was out of the question for us. It was all he could do to marry off those seven girls before they were 18 and scrape together a dowry for each of them. I was 15 when I married a man who was 18 years my senior. Two years later I gave birth to Samreen.”

According to Rasia, she has no immediate plans to marry her daughter off. “She’s still only 19; we’ll take another look when she’s about 23.” But she definitely won’t force the choice of a husband on Samreen, in the same way that it was forced on her. “We’ll choose a husband for her, but if she doesn’t agree it won’t happen.”

On deaf ears

Rasia’s progressive attitude towards not marrying off her daughter and helping her get an education has raised many eyebrows in the predominantly conservative community in which they live. “Many Indians think that the longer your daughter goes to school, the smarter she becomes. This then causes more rows between you and drives you further apart. But when people tell me all this, it falls on deaf ears.”

Samreen is also receiving support and inspiration from another strong woman, her aunt, Rasia’s sister. She too was forced to marry quickly. “I don’t know how she managed it, but she stayed in school until she was 17,” explains Rasia. “She was lucky enough to marry a man who encouraged her to continue studying and she now has two master degrees and works for an NGO.”

Inspiring other girls

In the same way that Samreen feels inspired by her aunt, she, in turn, hopes to inspire other girls to stand up to oppression. To this end she is participating in the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA), a programme promoting equal rights and opportunities for girls and young women and being implemented by Plan International Nederland, Terre des Hommes, Defence for Children – ECPAT and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By supporting local partner organisations and strengthening networks in 10 countries in Africa and Asia, the Alliance aims to make short shrift of child marriages, child trafficking and violence against girls and young women. The solution is seen to be, among other things, the prevention of economic exclusion by improving girls’ access to education.

The main protagonists in the GAA are the so-called youth advocates like Samreen. Together, they form a growing network of young girls, and boys too, who are keen to bring about change. These youth advocates are given special training courses in which they learn how to get the message across to other girls and their parents, as well as religious leaders, local authorities and decision-makers.

Samreen’s focus is mainly on the parents. “I want to convince the parents of underage girls who are planning to marry them off that it is very important that their daughters first finish their education. At the end of the day it is the parents who decide this. I want to impress upon them that there is no difference between a girl and a boy, provided you give them the same opportunities.”